Library of Congress

Poetry and Literature

The Library of Congress > Poetry & Literature > Poetry of America > Full List of Readings > James Tate reads Charles Wright
{ site_name: 'Poetry', subscribe_url:'/share/sites/library-of-congress/poetry.php' }

Back to ALL Poetry of America Readings and Commentary

The Other Side of the River

Easter again, and a small rain falls
On the mockingbird and the housefly,
					on the Chevrolet

In its purple joy
And the TV antennas huddled across the hillside—

Easter again, and the palm trees hunch
Deeper beneath their burden,
				The dark puddles take in

Whatever is given them,
And nothing rises more than halfway out of itself—

Easter with all its little mouths open in the rain.

There is no metaphor for the spring’s disgrace,
No matter how much the rose leaves look like bronze dove
No matter how much the plum trees preen in the wind.

For weeks I’ve thought about the Savannah River,
For no reason,
	    and the winter fields around Garnett, South Carolina
My brother and I used to hunt
At Christmas,
		Princess and Buddy working the millet stands
And the vine-lipped face of the pine woods
In their languorous zig-zags,
The quail, when they flushed, bursting like shrapnel points
Between the trees and the leggy shrubs
					   into the undergrowth,
Everything else in motion as though under water,
My brother and I, the guns, their reports tolling from far away
Through the aqueous, limb-filtered light,
December sun like a single tropical fish
Uninterested anyway,
			Suspended and holding still
In the coral stems of the pearl-dusked and distant trees . . . 

There is no metaphor for any of this,
Or the meta-weather of April,
The vinca blossoms like deep bruises among the green.
It’s linkage I’m talking about, 
		  and harmonies and structures
And all the various things that lock our wrists to the past.

Something infinite behind everything appears,
					 and then disappears.

It’s all a matter of how 
you narrow the surfaces.
It’s all a matter of how you fit in the sky.

Often, at night, when the stars seem as close as they do now,
    and as full,
And the trees balloon and subside in the way they do
					   when the wind is right,
As they do now after the rain,
			        the sea way off with its false sheen,
And the sky that slick black of wet rubber,
I’m 15 again, and back on Mt. Anne in North Carolina
Repairing the fire tower,
Nobody else around but the horse I packed in with,
				    and five days to finish the job.
Those nights were the longest night I ever remember,
The lake and pavilion 3,000 feet below
				        as though modeled in tinfoil,
And even more distant than that,
The last fire out, the after-reflection of Lake Llewellyn
Aluminum glare in the sponged dark,
Lightning bugs everywhere,
			        the plump stars
Dangling and falling near on their black strings.

These nights are like that,
The silvery alphabet of the sea
				increasingly difficult to transcribe,
And larger each year, everything farther away, and less clear,
Than I want it to be,
		        not enough time to do the job,
And faint thunks in the earth,
As though somewhere nearby a horse was nervously pawing
    the ground.

I want to sit by the bank of the river,
		 in the shade of the evergreen tree,
And look in the face of whatever,
		          the whatever that’s waiting for me.

There comes a point when everything starts to dust away
More quickly than it appears,
		          when what we have to comfort the dark
Is just that dust, and just its going away.

25 years I used to sit on this jut of rocks
As the sun went down like an offering through the glaze
And backfires of Monterey Bay,
And anything I could think of was mine because it was there
			in front of me, numinously everywhere,
Appearing and piling up . . . 

So to have come to this,
		    remembering what I did do, and what I 
                                 didn’t do,
The gulls whimpering over the boathouse,
				                the monarch butterflies
Cruising the flower beds,
And all the soft hairs of spring thrusting up through the wind,
And the sun, as it always does,
	         dropping into its slot without a click,
Is a short life of trouble.	

—Charles Wright

James Tate reads Charles Wright's “The Other Side of the River”

Transcription of Commentary

This is James Tate reading “The Other Side of the River” by Charles Wright.

[Did this poem deepen or complicate conventional notions of American identity?]

Well, I … I mean obviously I’m going to say yes, just because it has many elements throughout it, throughout the poem, that might sound familiar to most readers of American poetry—it’s its place and youth and specific memories, and so on. But then for him to arrive at the incredible last line in the poem, “Is a short life of trouble,” I mean, that’s pretty shocking and it jolts you to think back on the whole poem and wonder how you got there and so on. And the poem holds up to such scrutiny.

[How do you relate to this, the speaker in this poem, or as Charles Wright?]

I guess I’d like to go hunting with him, you know, hunting quail. There are such beautiful memories, and so on, of childhood in the South, in the fire tower, and hunting with his brother, and things like that. Yeah, he’s a familiar guy and somebody I feel I care about.

[How has this poem informed your work, specifically in terms of identity?]

It hasn’t.

Well, I’ll speak about Charles Wright particularly. He spent most of his life detailing subjects centered, always, around him and his world and … I mean, there are no imaginary flights, supposedly, though of course there are in language—language is the great conveyor of both his subject and his poetics, you know? And so he seems like he’s locked into some very narrow thing, namely the self, but in truth, it gets very large and wide thanks to his great use of language, and his love of language, and the rhythm, and things of that sort.

“The Other Side of the River” Charles Wright from The World of Ten Thousand Things: Poems, 1980-1990. Farrar, Strauss, & Giroux, 1991.

Reprinted by permission of the author.

Related Resources

James Tate

James Tate

Read “The Blue Booby” by James Tate

James Tate (1942-2015) was born in Kansas City, Missouri. He is the author of 17 collections of poetry, including Dome of the Hidden Pavilion (2015); Worshipful Company of Fletchers (1994), winner of the National Book Award; and Selected Poems (1991), which won the Pulitzer Prize and the William Carlos Williams Award. Tate’s honors include fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation and the National Endowment for the Arts, the Wallace Stevens Award from the Academy of American Poets, and a National Institute of Arts and Letters Award for Poetry. A former Chancellor of the Academy of American Poets and a member of the American Academy of Arts and Letters, Tate was a distinguished professor at the University of Massachusetts Amherst until his death in 2015.

Learn more about James Tate at The Poetry Foundation

Charles Wright

Charles Wright

Charles Wright (1935- ) was born in Tennessee and educated at Davidson College and the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. The author of over 30 poetry collections and several prose collections, he is the recipient of many honors, including the Griffin Poetry Prize for Scar Tissue (2006), the Pulitzer Prize for Black Zodiac (1997), and the National Book Award for Country Music: Selected Early Poems (1982). Wright has taught as the Souder Family Professor of English at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville, and served as the 20th Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry.

Learn more about Charles Wright at The Poetry Foundation